Thursday, March 24, 2011

By Way of Explanation

I have removed any reference to the Continuum edition of Cornelius Castoriadis's Postscript on Insignificance and recommend to you that you use the far more comprehensive edition, Postscript on Insignificancy, linked to in the post below, from Not Bored.

David Ames Curtis outlines his concerns about the Continuum edition here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Postscript on Insignificancy

NotBored announcement (via David Ames Curtis)

Today, on the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune, we announce the publication of Postscript on Insignificancy, including More Interviews and Discussions on the Rising Tide of Insignificancy, followed by Five Dialogues, Four Portraits and Two Book Reviews by Cornellius Castoriadis, which has been -- like the other volumes in this series -- translated from the French and edited anonymously as a public service.

Link to the Cornelius Castoriadis page we host.

Direct link to the new volume


Notice ii
Books by Cornelius Castoriadis Published in English, with
Standard Abbreviations v
Books by Cornelius Castoriadis Published in French, with
Standard Abbreviations vii
Foreword x
On the Translation xlvi

§Corneille, Key Dissident, by Daniel Mermet 5
§Neither God, Nor Caesar, Nor Tribune (1996) 8

§Socialism or Barbarism (1961) 27
§A Thoroughgoing Shakeup of All Forms of Social Life:
An Introductory Interview (1973) 53
§Wot? No Contradictions? (1974) 61
§Liberal Oligarchies (1985) 66
§Beating the Retreat Into Private Life (1986) 67
§The Ambiguities of Apoliticism (1986) 75
§This Extraordinary Capacity for Self-Organization (1987) 78
§Perish the Church, the State, the Universities, the Media,
and the Consensus (1988) 88
§The Big Sleep of the Democracies (1989) 93
§Giving a Meaning to Our Lives (1990) 96
§Politics in Crisis (1990) 100
§A Crisis of the Imaginary? (1991) 106
§The Rebirth of a Democratic Movement (1991) 109
§The “End of History”? (1992) 117
§Society Running in Neutral (1992) 130
§The Crisis of Marxism and the Crisis of Politics (1992) 134
§If There Is to Be a Democratic Europe (1993) 144
§I Am a Revolutionary (1997) 153

French Editors’ Foreword to Dialogue 161
§Répliques: “Facing Modernity” with Octavio Paz and
Cornelius Castoriadis (1996) 164
§Interview: Cornelius Castoriadis and
Jean-Luc Donnet (1995) 184
§Interview: Cornelius Castoriadis and
Francisco Varela (1995) 200
§Interview: Cornelius Castoriadis and
Alain Connes (1995) 217
§Interview in Annex: Cornelius Castoriadis and
Robert Legros (1990) 236

§Benno Sternberg-Sarel (1971) 255
§C.L.R. James and the Fate of Marxism (1992) 258
§Remembering Irving Howe (1993) 288
§Raoul (1995) 290

§Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy
(1980) 296
§Philosophy as Antidote: Roger-Pol Droit, Philosophy
and Democracy in the World (1995) 300

Appendix: Potential Future Translation Projects 305

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Does It Seem Like a Long March to You?

Eleanor Hartney reviews Feng Mengbo's exhibition at MoMA P.S.1, New York, in the February edition of Art in America magazine.

With his 80-foot-long digital wall installation The Long March: Restart, Feng Mengbo amends Karl Marx's famous dictum: here history repeats itself not as farce but as kitsch.

. . .

In Feng's hands, the Long March becomes an elaborate video game for a single player positioned between two massive projections sprawling over opposite sides of a gallery. At P.S.1, you pass through several blind corridors to enter the darkened gallery containing the work. Appearing on the walls between play sessions is an anachronistic montage of grainy images from the Cultural Revolution era (1966–76), when the propaganda machine of the Communist government was in high gear. To the accompaniment of blaring Chinese music, the stills flash by: beaming young men and women in the uniforms of the Red Guard, mountain scenes and maps, presumably of the area traversed during the Long March, and framed portraits of a handsome young Mao.

This sequence is followed by the game's logo—a Red Army soldier astride a crushed can of Coca-Cola. The game commences with a screen on which the soldier stands poised within a giant red star in a landscape dominated by the Great Wall. The object is to move him across the horizontal stretch of the scene and on to the next scenario. He can jump, move forward and fire his weapon, loaded with exploding Coke can projectiles, at the various obstacles that come his way. There are eight such screens in all, appearing consecutively as players achieve higher levels, each with its own settings and opponents, and each requiring a successively greater degree of dexterity.

How come the sound track isn't Gang of Four?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Coming Soon!(ish)

I've just finished reading Shimson & Bichler's Capital as Power and would have really liked to post a review, seeing as how fecund it is with ideas and arguments that could do with broader dissemination (not that reviewing it here would get it any broader dissemination!). But before I can do the book justice, I'm going to have to re-read all of my Veblen, and anyone who's tried reading Veblen will know that this isn't an enviable task. His style is prolix, dry, and to all appearances detached and contemplative (although at the same time he is funny, ironic, and insightful, and his analyses of American capitalism secured for him the epithet "the American Marx.") Shimson & Bichler lament the fact that their book has yet to be reviewed by any Marxists, but I suspect that that's because it means acquiring a familiarity with Veblen that few people of sound mind outside of the academy would want to entertain.

I'll characterize their book as a neo-Veblenite analysis of capital, liberally sprinkled with Castoriadian pixie dust and copious amounts of documentation and research, which is how it should be. Don't go anywhere near it until you've read Veblen's economic writings (The Engineers and the Price System and Absentee Ownership being the two most relevant). I was able to dig out my Portable Veblen and Diggins's Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class in order to jog my memory (I read Veblen for my master's nearly two decades ago), but they really only allowed me to keep up with Shimson & Bichler, and even then I was unable to fully understand many of the passages, particularly those dealing with more arcane arguments amongst contemporary Marxist economists (S&B also claim to be influenced by Polish economist Michał Kalecki, although he really only seems to feature in the closing chapters).

Frankly, I'll probably have to read Capital as Power another couple of times before I can fully understand it. And having now done my best to dissuade you from reading it too, let me just say that you really should read it. ;-)

In the meantime, let me draw your attention to AK Press's newly published Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reader, Property Is Theft! edited by Iain McKay, who's responsible for the Anarchist FAQ site. The ideal gift (see what I did there?)

Monday, March 14, 2011

John Gerassi Interview

According to the teaser for this 2001 interview in the "electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice" Cultural Logic, John Gerassi is indeed engaged in work on the second volume of his biography of Jean-Paul Sartre. I shall really loook forward to it.

The interview itself is also well worth a read, if you can forgive the annoying typos (Cantor for Castor, Pupette for Poupette, etc.).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

If It's March It Must Be Lanzarote

Creature of habit that I am, this month means a getaway to somewhere hot and sunny. The heat is for my better half's arthritis, the sun is for my ageing flesh. It also means an opportunity for some light reading that can't be done on the train for fear of ostracism. I can still remember the confused looks that The 120 Days of Sodom drew from the women who get on at Rush & Lusk (I told them it was research). In retrospect, I should have turned the book upside down or on its side from time to time, so that it seemed like I was looking at pictures. Never mind. I'll do that when I take Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition to work.

Conversations with Manuel Castells, by Manuel Castells and Martin Ince

I doubt that this book would have shocked anyone on the train, come to think of it. They're pretty broad-minded in Drogheda. The soft-focus photo of Castells on the cover has a lurid, vaselined-lens look about it but you won't find anything too erotic inside, unless you get off on discussions about the structure and development of grassroots organizations in urban environments. I do, of course, which is why I had to take this book on holiday.

The book came out in 2003, so there's a dated feel to some of the conversations, and Castells has published a couple of important books in the meantime, such as The Network Society and Communication Power. These interviews were conducted just after the publication of The Internet Galaxy and so is influenced by that, but the focus of Castells's work has been fairly steady over the past 15 to 20 years, so we get here both a retrospective of his theories and a snapshot of his thought in development. The opening interview deals with Castells's personal life and career, offering some interesting insights into some of the motivations behind his thought and work (for one thing, I'd really like to know more about how Pierre Bourdieu attempted to destroy Castells professionally). Subsequent chapters deal with the role that Castells sees for new technologies in the organization of social power, how individuals and groups engage in the cultural construction of meaning, the distinction between politics and power, and the importance of information and knowledge in shaping the world we live in. The seventh of the eight conversations presents a sort of guided tour of Castells's world. Castells has lived, worked, and engaged in research in a variety of countries, so Ince asks him to give his considered opinion of how he sees the world's various regions taking shape in the Information Age. Castells opens by conceding that the Middle East is one of the few regions he does not know well, and given that this interview took place in early 2002, this is the conversation that has aged least well. Not that Castells makes any imprudent forecasts—he generally dislikes doing so in any case—but so much has happened since then that it makes more sense to look at Castells's more recent works and interviews to get a sense of his ideas on this topic.

All in all an easy read and a nice book to start your holiday with. :-)

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows

It's been at least two decades since I read Norbert Wiener's ground-breaking and eye-wateringopening Cybernetics, and the only other encounter with Systems Theory I've had was the Theory, Culture and Society special issue on the work of Niklas Luhmann a decade ago. Meadows was lead author of the book Limits to Growth (30-year update here), a MacArthur Foundation "genius," and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, so I figured I ought to up (or at least update) my game and get to grips with the principles of systems thinking as it is applied today (as opposed to in Wiener's day).

Meadows died before this book was finished, but there's enough here to provide a not-too-strenuous introduction to the basics. I could have done without the diagrams, which, if anything, were unhelpful and more confusing than the text. The introductory chapters perform the same function as those in Wiener's book, outlining the main ideas behind systems thinking and giving a few theoretical examples. Later chapters here explore the unusual ways that systems can behave, identify common real-world applications of systems thinking, how to spot systemic traps and opportunities (Bounded Rationality, The Tragedy of the Commons, Drift to Low Performance, Competitive Exclusion, Systemic Resilience), and how to intervene in systems and identify leverage points in a system. One of the significant caveats Meadows points out is that there's always a danger of misrecognizing or misidentifying a system at work, particularly when it comes to knowing where a system begins and ends—what feedback loops exist, how they work, and whether they themselves participate in or constitute another system in their own right—so it strikes me that a real-world application of systems thinking needs to be constantly subject to revision. All the same, systems thinking constitutes a useful way of reconceptualizing, or, at least, offering new perspectives on, a range of issues, whether it's social hierarchies, struggles between social classes over resources, political campaigns, or the more standard use and exploitation of resources.

One of my most enjoyable reads in recent years was John Gerassi's Talking with Sartre (reviewed here), notable for its honesty, humour, and love of its subject. This first volume of Gerassi's "authorized" biography of Sartre is in much the same vein and clearly draws on the same conversations, even though this book was published first. Gerassi is unrelenting in his criticism of Sartre's faults and failings and yet, for all that, it is clear that he has a genuine love and admiration for Sartre, a man he knew intimately and with profound attachment.

According to Gerassi, although he was tasked with writing Sartre's official biography, he felt unable to do so since it was impossible to improve on Sartre's own account of his childhood in Words and because Sartre had given some suggestion that he might write a follow-up, dealing with his later life. It was only with the publication of Annie Cohen-Solal's "objective" biography of Sartre in 1981 that Gerassi then felt free to give the world his "subjective" but nonetheless more accurate Biography.

Much of the book is, in actuality, an account of Gerassi's own dealings with Sartre. In a slight book (a couple of hundred pages), details of Sartre's early years take up no more than half the text (at a guesstimate). But the book is none the worse for that. Much of the ground has already been covered by Sartre himself. Instead, what we get are interrogations by Gerassi of Sartre about episodes from his childhood, anecdotes of meetings with Sartre, de Beauvoir and their circle, and a great deal of background information. All of which makes the book much more likeable. I've no idea whether there will be a second volume dealing with Sartre's middle and later years (this one gets us up to the end of the Second World War); it will require vast amounts of research, I would imagine, but also be much meatier in terms of dealing with Sartre's philosophical and political development. I do hope Gerassi is up to it, because this is a delightful and enjoyable work that presents us with a three-dimensional character, a man flawed in so many ways and yet in so many ways also admirable. And some of the anecdotes, such as the account of Sartre's meeting with Marcuse, render the book a gem in its own right as a memoir. Well worth getting hold of it if you can.

Described as a "no-holds barred exposé of the financial profiteering and ambiguous ethics that pervade the world of humanitarian aid," Linda Polman's book is really only a superficial skimming over the surface of the humanitarian aid business, mainly based on her journalistic experiences in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and a couple of other war zones. She explains how humanitarian aid gets diverted by corruption, how it is used by those engaged in war and genocide to advance their cause, and how the purported neutrality and impartiality of aid organizations plays out on the ground. In some cases, we discover, aid organizations act as, at best, logistical backup to the consolidation of power, at worst, as collaborators in genocide. A moral dilemma faces aid agencies, she argues, yet they refuse to deal with it: Is doing something always better than doing nothing?

It isn't a question that Polman feels the need to answer herself. And one suspects that it's a question that many of those working for aid agencies deal with on a regular basis. What I would have preferred to have seen from this book was an examination of corruption within humanitarian organizations, of the politicization of humanitarian aid not just by warlords and genocidaires but by the UN, by foreign governments, by bureaucrats and administrators. As you'd expect, Polman touches on all of these—the journalistic approach to book writing seems to be to pile example after example into the text without generating any depth of analysis or sense of nuance (and I should make the observation here that this book contains a lot of unattributed statements)—but her main focus is on the consequences of all these factors as they impact on the purported recipients of aid, the people she encountered at the sharp end, as it were. Not that this isn't important. Some of the details she provides will turn your stomach and disgust you with the entire process of humanitarian aid. But I'd be surprised if anyone reading this review or Polman's book hadn't already developed some cynicism about Bono.

There's a handy guide to "Aidspeak" at the back of the book that readers will enjoy. It could almost stand as an appendix to Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. For example:

complex emergency: A situation that involves war, displacement, sickness, and hunger simultaneously in one place. Some say it is nothing more than a label aid organizations attach to emergencies "to cover up the fact that they don't know what's going on."

diversion: Euphemism for making aid money and supplies disappear. They are "diverted" to another destination, such as someone's trouser pocket.

"never again": From events in Darfur, northern Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia, we can deduce that "never again" should be interpreted to mean not "never again genocide" but "never again an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people by Nazis."

I think Bierce has the edge, mind you.

*Ahem* Happy International Women's Day

What? We were on holiday.

Here's a link to Lizzy Hyatt's article at YPHR just to remind us how far women still have to go. It includes a link to this inspiring Facebook page.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Social Media and Social Change

The exchange here, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, between Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky reminded me of a recent interview with Manuel Castells on the role of the Internet in the recent uprisings in the Arab world. Shirky and Gladwell do not reference those events, but Shirky makes some salient points that are echoed in the Castells interview:


Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.

It would be impossible to tell the story of Philippine President Joseph Estrada's 2000 downfall without talking about how texting allowed Filipinos to coordinate at a speed and on a scale not available with other media. Similarly, the supporters of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero used text messaging to coordinate the 2004 ouster of the People's Party in four days; anticommunist Moldovans used social media in 2009 to turn out 20,000 protesters in just 36 hours; the South Koreans who rallied against beef imports in 2008 took their grievances directly to the public, sharing text, photos, and video online, without needing permission from the state or help from professional media. Chinese anticorruption protesters use the instant-messaging service QQ the same way today. All these actions relied on the power of social media to synchronize the behavior of groups quickly, cheaply, and publicly, in ways that were unavailable as recently as a decade ago.

As I noted in my original essay, this does not mean insurgents always prevail. Both the Green Movement and the Red Shirt protesters used novel strategies to organize, but the willingness of the Iranian and Thai governments to kill their own citizens proved an adequate defense of the status quo. Given the increased vigor of state reaction in the world today, it is not clear what new equilibriums between states and their citizens will look like. (I believe that, as with the printing press, the current changes will result in a net improvement for democracy; the scholars Evgeny Morozov and Rebecca MacKinnon, among others, dispute this view.)

Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens' ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.


. . . In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn't dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.

. . .

In Egypt, they even tried to disconnect the whole net but they couldn't manage it. There were thousands of ways, including telephone land line connections to numbers abroad which automatically converted the messages into twitters and fax messages in Egypt. And the financial cost and functional effort involved in disconnecting the internet is so much that the connection had to be restored extremely quickly. A power cut on the net is like an electricity power cut today. Ben Ali didn't go that quickly, there was a month of demonstrations and massacres. And in Iran, the internet couldn't be shut down, with information about the demonstrations and videos of them on You Tube. The difference is that over there, politically speaking, the regime had the power to brutally repress things without causing divisions in the army. However, the seeds of rebellion are there and young Iranians (70% of the population) are now massively against the regime. It's a question of time.

What is the Secret of Great Comedy?

This arrived in my Inbox 14 hours ago:

Dear John

Are you passionate about LSE? Have you got enthusiasm and ideas about how the School engages with its alumni? Then why not apply to sit on one of the Alumni Association committees.

The LSE Alumni Association was established in 2005 to give alumni a greater voice within the School. Working alongside a dedicated Alumni Relations team, the Alumni Association looks for innovative ways to:
  • support alumni groups, of which there are currently over 70 across the world;
  • engage alumni with the School, across all age groups;
  • develop our programme of events and communications to ensure it appeals to a wide range of alumni.
The Alumni Association is made up of a number of committees, which each focus on a different area of alumni engagement. These committees are overseen by an Executive Committee which meets regularly with representatives from the School to present the ideas and feedback from the committees’ meetings.

The Alumni Association committees are: To find out more about the work of the Alumni Association and its committees, or for more information about how to apply for a two-year term (September 2011 – September 2013), please see the Alumni Association web pages.

Interested in being involved in the Alumni Association Executive Committee or one of its committees? Apply online today.

Kind regards

The Alumni Association Executive Committee

I wonder if the same message went out to the alumni in Tripoli.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Suze Rotolo 20 November 1943 – 24 February 2011

Pronounced "Suzy," Of course.

Everybody always thought he was crazy for dumping you.